As a young woman with a rural working-class background, it is a rare thing to see myself represented onstage. Most often, the female characters I see in theatre are kind of, sort of, a bit like me, but not really, and seeing myself in them requires a carving-off of their age or their cultural or socio-economic context to be able to fully relate. More commonly, I attempt to relate to male characters by superimposing my femaleness on top, which is always difficult and often fraught. So, thank god for The National Theatre of Scotland’s Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour which, as part of this year’s Melbourne Festival, provided the most honest, empathetic and unapologetically refreshing representation of young working-class women that I have ever seen onstage.
Our Ladies… follows six Catholic schoolgirls as they travel from their small hometown to Edinburgh to compete in a choir competition. Like every teenage girl ever, they are much more interested in drinking, partying and having sex, which is exactly what they all set out to do. Over a twenty-four hour period, we see these girls come of age in their own unique ways. As their hegemonic school uniforms are swapped for individualised street clothes, we learn what is at the very heart of each of their girls – their unique challenges, grief, confusion and joys.
The play is interspersed with songs (arranged by Martin Lowe) ranging from the uptight classical hymn to seminal rock anthem, all sung superbly by the astonishing cast (Caroline Deyga, Kirsty Findlay, Joanne McGuinness, Kirsty Maclaren, Francis Mayli McCann and Dawn Sievewright). The music deepens the play’s content and characters’ arcs as meaningfully as the best musicals, and offers a visceral emotional release unachievable with words alone.
Our Ladies…, directed by Vicky Featherstone, is one of the most harrowing depictions of young women’s burgeoning sexualities I have seen onstage (to be honest, it is probably the only depiction of young women’s burgeoning sexualities I have seen onstage, such is the mainstream industry’s baffling and frustrating fear of representing such a thing). As the play – and each woman – unravels, it becomes clear that despite their outward bravado about all things sexual, they are just as confused and unsure as each other.
All the male characters – and there are many – are played by the six women. This is a brilliant piece of writing/direction that allows the women to keep control of their own stories; we see the men as they see them – a bit ridiculous, with echoes of creepy menace – and we can only take the threat as far as they experienced it. There is no chance of viewing these women as victims just because that’s an easy box for them to be shoved into – the characters in this play tell you their stories their way, and there is no way they are going to let you pigeonhole them.
Our Ladies… is a rare and brilliant piece of theatre that highlights just what is missing from Australia’s stages. None of Melbourne’s mainstage companies are offering us work such as this, which gives a whole demographic of people the chance to see themselves onstage, to see themselves as important enough for their stories to warrant time and space on a stage. Diversity in theatre has been a huge topic of conversation of late, and it shameful to think that an all-female white cast, telling a story solely about women with a female director, is diverse in this country. No wonder we have a diversity problem when it takes an overseas company and an international festival to grant us the opportunity to see these bodies represented onstage.
The joyous, challenging, artistically-superb Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour should, if nothing else, be a walloping great kick up the backside to Melbourne theatre makers that yes, this sort of work is possible and yes, we are capable of making work like this if we simply try hard enough.